Wally And Maggie Go To The Races.
Waller Conroe and Magnolia Tomball grew up on adjacent farms near Todd Mission in Southeast Grimes County near the Montgomery and Waller County lines. During high school they traveled to local rodeos together where Wally rode broncs and roped calves and Maggie won barrel races and made money in breakaway roping. Well liked by contestants and fans, the gangly, shy couple was the only male-female team roping pair on the GMW rodeo circuit. Wally looked at the ground, his face a ripening tomato each time he received a first place belt buckle or trophy. Maggie smiled her thank you and tears streaked the dust on her sun-darkened face each time she led her Quarter Horse mare Dobbin to the presentation stand to pick up an award.
A year after graduating high school in 1963, Wally married Tamina Johnson and moved to Oklahoma to work on a large cattle feedlot. Two years later, Maggie finally gave in to persistent Ray Ford and settled with her new husband near Hempstead where they raised chickens and watermelons. For the first five years after Wally moved, both continued to rodeo, but not with the same enthusiasm as when they had rodeoed together. Wally and Tamina bought 30 acres east of Alva, Oklahoma and Wally broke horses in his spare time. Maggie and Ray bred Dobbin to Dodger’s Big Ace and over the years developed a small horse breeding operation. The families traded Christmas cards every year for the first twenty years and gradually lost contact after Maggie and Ray divorced in 1983. Maggie moved back to the small farm she inherited from her parents and devoted her time to teaching riding and volunteering at Dream Catcher Stables, a therapeutic riding program in Spring.
Tamina died from breast cancer in 2000 and Wally retired from the feedlot, sold his Oklahoma acreage and purchased a similar sized farm near Mostyn, Texas. Wally devoted his time to fixing up his new place so he could resume breaking young horses. In July 2002 he started passing out flyers at local feed stores announcing openings for a limited number of green horses. Maggie found one of those flyers on her truck as she was leaving Magnolia Feed and Seed. A brief mixture of hurt and anger gave way to nervous anticipation as she realized that her old friend was back in Texas. Wally was grilling a ribeye steak on his little electric grill when his phone rang. When they finished stammering through apologies for losing contact and not being around for the other’s difficult times, they agreed to meet at the Bar-B-Que place in Magnolia, catch up on the past twenty years and start doing things together.
Readers of Purple Power can now join Maggie and Wally as they enjoy a new adventure each week. This week, Wally and Maggie go to the races.
“Hey, Maggie, you ever been to the horse racetrack in
Houston?”, Wally asked over his peach cobbler filled spoon.
”Yes. I started going about two years after it opened in April of 1994.”, stated Maggie. “I particularly like the Quarter Horse racing they have in the summer. I was busy last summer and didn’t go at all. I haven’t been yet this summer either.”
“Well, let’s go this weekend.”, suggested Wally.
“Oh, that’d be fun!” exclaimed Maggie.
Wally and Maggie met at Magnolia Feed and Seed the next Saturday night and drove down Hwy 249 through Tomball, past Willowbrook mall and exited at Beltway 8. “You sure this is the right way to go?”, asked Wally as he turned right onto the Beltway feeder road. “Yep,” replied Maggie. “They don’t have any signs because of some regulations about the kind of signs that can be along the side of Beltway 8. But, the track sits right beside the Beltway between 249 and Gessner. They race at night, and the lights really light up the sky around here.”
Wally turned left under the Beltway onto Fairbanks North Houston and whistled when he saw the large Sam Houston Race Park grandstand off to his right. Wally eased his blue F-150 south along Fairbanks No-Houston and Maggie pointed out the white fence that marked the outside of the backside of the track. “I came to a Saturday morning program once and learned that they have two racing surfaces. The main track is a one-mile oval and they used sand from the Brazos River as the surface. Inside of the dirt track they have a grass course that was named after Governor John B. Connally. You remember him don’t you Wally?”
“Sure”, stated Wally. “He was with President Kennedy in Dallas when Kennedy was shot.”
“That’s right.”, said Maggie. “Governor Connally worked hard to get pari-mutuel wagering passed in Texas, so I think it was nice of them to name their grass course after him.”
Wally turned right onto Fallbrook and dove past a chain link fence that bordered the stable area. “Looks like room for a lot of horses back here.” he offered. “About 1200 I seem to remember them saying”, answered Maggie.
They saw a sign that said Gate 3, Stable Gate and slowed to allow a four-horse gooseneck trailer to complete its entry into the drive and stop at a guard house. “They have to check those horses in”, stated Wally. “I had a couple of buddies out of Woodward, Oklahoma that I broke some young racehorses for in the late 80’s and early 90’s. I went with them a couple of times to bring some of their racehorses to the track in Oklahoma City. I’m sure it’s much the same here. They have to have current negative Coggins papers and health certificates to get in.” Maggie mumbled something that indicated she had heard, but her gaze was fixed on a bright-eyed gray watching her from the third window of the trailer.
“We gonna have to pay for parking?”, Wally asked as he turned right into the main drive that ran between Fallbrook and the Beltway 8 feeder. “I think so,” stated Maggie. It’s 6:00 and they start charging for parking after 5:30. Even so they only charge $3.00 for general parking that’s pretty close to the entry gates.” Just then Wally saw a sign that said VALET $6.00 with an arrow pointing straight ahead and GENERAL $3.00 with an arrow pointing to the left. “Heck, Valet here is cheaper than parking for an Astros game. Let’s drive right up there and let them park “Ole Blue”
A yellow shirted parking attendant opened each door and gave Wally his parking stub. As he noted the sign that informed patrons that General Admission was $3.00, Wally softly grasped Maggie’s right arm and whispered, “Where is the clubhouse entrance? I thought we’d have dinner in the clubhouse.”
“Oh, it doesn’t cost extra to go to the club level here. General admission is good for the first and second floors. Club level is the second floor. They have seats we can purchase, or we can sit where me and my friend Karen Ventura always sat when we came together.”
“The theater seats. They’re FREE. You can see the horses when they walk up before each race, when the come onto the track for the post parade and when they are battling down the stretch toward the finish line. The “Beer of the Worlds” bar is right at the top of the theater seat area, and Karen and I both like a German beer every now and then.”
Wally started to get some money out of his wallet, but Maggie was already handing $6.00 to the admissions clerk. “You’re paying for the parking, I’ve got this”, she smiled. As they walked under the green canopy toward the glass entry doors to the grandstand, Maggie pointed out the saddling paddock to their left. “There’s the paddock. I like to come out here before each race , watch the horses being saddled , watch them walk around to where their trainer and jockey are waiting and then see how they act when the trainer boosts the jockey into the saddle. That’s when I pick the horses I’m going to bet on.
“I usually look at the information in the program to pick mine,” Wally stated. “Now that I am going to have more time to attend the races I’d like to learn more about what the program information tells me.”
“Oh, then I know just the place you need to go.” Maggie said as they walked into the cool air of the grandstand.
For a moment Maggie seemed disconcerted. “Uh, WOW!”, she exclaimed. “They have really changed the look down
here. It’s all colorful and bright –
and fun looking!”
”Maggie? Hello – Wally to Maggie.” Wally was grinning when Maggie finally refocused on him.
“Oh – I’m sorry” she said with a giggle, “I didn’t realize the track had made such dramatic improvements since I was here two summers ago.”
“You said you knew a place I should go,” reminded Wally.
“Oh yeah. I think
it’s called the “Fan room” or something like that. There is this guy that tells people how to read the program and
how to bet. He sometimes does a show on
the stage in front of the theater seats and talks about racing and how to play
the game. Look – there it is over there
behind the program seller stand.”
Wally noticed a sign over a glass-fronted room that said “Fan Education Room, Learn to Wager Here”. “How much does it cost to go in there?” Wally asked.
“Nothing.” Maggie replied. “It’s free”.
“What time is the first race?” Wally asked
“Seven O’clock.” Maggie offered. “And, it’s only 6:20.”
“You reckon the guy is in there now?”
“Yes. That’s him in the purple shirt”. Maggie laughed. “Everytime I’ve seen him he had on a purple shirt. He writes a tip sheet called Purple Power. Karen always downloaded it from the internet for free before we would come. She said Purple Power helped her make money.” Maggie pulled out a folded up page of newsprint and showed it to Wally. “I like this Martha Claussen. She’s the track Media and Public Relations person and puts her picks in the Houston Chronicle.”
Wally and Maggie got a few questions answered in the Fan Education Room and then enjoyed a gourmet buffet in the Winner’s Circle restaurant. They won enough to pay the $50 tab and headed down the escalators at 11:00 as the winner of the tenth race was getting its picture taken in the winners’ circle.
As they walked out into the warm night, an unusual but welcome breeze lifted Maggie’s straight, grayish blonde hair from her neck. She remembered a time at the Waller County Rodeo forty years before when she wished Wally had been more interested in her as a female rather than a roping partner. That feeling hadn’t lasted long that night, but now it was back. Their forearms brushed as they walked wordlessly through the exit gate. A valet attendant took off at a full run toward the parking lot to get “Ole Blue”. Maggie’s and Wally’s eyes met and held for a moment. Wally looked away and smiled. “When does the Thoroughbred meet start?” he asked.
“November 1st” Maggie said as she felt her cheeks get a little warm. .
NEXT Week. Wally and Maggie place some bets.